Updated November 29, 2020
‘Emergency Care’ (details below)
How to Tell Reverse Sneezing from Choking
- Reverse sneezing causes minimal distress and gums remain pink
- It can usually be stopped if you call or distract a dog
- The dog is 100% fine immediately before and afterwards
If in doubt, see a vet immediately. True choking is often fatal. No vet will criticise you for being careful, even if there is nothing wrong.
Now dive deeper…
Reverse sneezing is dramatic and scary. Many times a dog in the middle of a bout has been rushed to me for choking. That’s not an unreasonable thought when you see what it looks like.
However, while certainly unpleasant to the dog, reverse sneezing is virtually harmless. Since most dogs will do it at some time, it’s important for dog owners to understand.
What Is Reverse Sneezing?
Reverse sneezing is repetitive sucking of air through the nose, accompanied by a harsh grunting, snorting or gagging noise. It can last anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds, during which the dog stands with outstretched neck, lips drawn back and a ‘far away’ expression.
The noise is created by air passing between the nasal passages and the soft palate. When you watch these dogs in the videos, it looks like they do it to itch the throat or nose. I believe they deliberately push the soft palate against the back of the throat in order to create the vibration that we hear.
What Causes Reverse Sneezing?
Reverse sneezing is never normal. It occurs due to irritation of a part of the throat called the nasopharynx up behind the nasal passages. Common causes of throat irritation are:
- Pollens and dust from sniffing dusty areas
- Infections such as kennel cough
- Seasonal allergy
- Reduced airspace in short-faced and small breeds; affected dogs include the Pug, French Bulldog, Chihuahua and smaller Terriers
- Pneumonyssoides caninum is a nasal mite that is found (rarely) in NSW and Qld
The last video shows a dog with rhinitis. This characteristic noise is nasal stertor, not reverse sneezing. It’s caused by something irritating the nasal passages. Often the causes are the same as above, so it’s not a terrible mistake to make. However, the location of the problem is different, so you might like to look at the causes of true sneezing in dogs too.
For most dogs, an occasional reverse sneeze is acceptable and no cause for alarm. However, if your dog has started reverse sneezing constantly or is getting worse then you need to help. It’s also worth reading our page on the causes of coughing in dogs.
How To Stop Reverse Sneezing
Reverse sneezing is a semi-voluntary behaviour, so anything that distracts or disrupts your dog will often stop it. This might include picking a dog up, rubbing the throat, pinching the nostrils or even a tasty treat. However, just like any other itch, you aren’t fixing the underlying irritation, just suppressing the symptoms.
To stop reverse sneezing properly, you need to recognise and treat the cause.
Treatment of Reverse Sneezing
Reverse sneezing is treated by reducing the irritation to the airways. Always start with a diagnosis from the vet of the likely cause.
- Mild cases may be best left untreated.
- Infections are usually treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.
- Seasonal allergy can respond to antihistamines or may need a vet to give cortisone. However, even if it responds to drugs like Benadryl or Phenergan, you should find out why.
- Dogs with short faces can get into a vicious circle of inflammation and worsening signs. These ‘brachycephalic’ dogs need a cortisone injection to settle airway swelling and reduce distress and may benefit from more permanent surgical solutions.
What Else Causes Dogs To Cough?
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you of more serious diseases that can be confused with reverse sneezing.
- Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome is the correct term for all the effects on the airways caused by short facial shape in dogs. Too often I see dog owners not taking this seriously enough. If your dog breathes noisily even at rest, it’s not cute, it’s a cry for help.
- Collapsing Trachea is a common cause of a goose-honk or hoarse cough of older small breeds. Again, without specific treatment it is very serious.
- Left-sided Cardiac Disease causes fluid accumulation in the lungs that can result in shortness of breath or coughing.
- Infection is rare these days other than, of course, kennel cough. When I was a young vet, heartworm disease was the leading cause of coughing in dogs.
Want to know more? Read here about the heartworm epidemic in Adelaide in the 1990’s.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.